Earlier this year, movies like "Gasland" and "Promised Land" opened the eyes of many people to the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. In the past few years, protests have been formed and laws have been passed to regulate or limit this drilling procedure over environmental concerns. You may have heard the term used a few times on the nightly news but weren't quite sure what to make of it, so I wanted to explain the basics.
Fracking uses pressurized liquid to blast natural gas, oil or uranium out of shale deposits in wells that have already been tapped using conventional vertical drilling. The upside is an increase in these resources and less dependency on foreign energy sources, but the downside is quite a bit more complicated than that.
Traditional fracking has been in commercial use since 1949, so it's certainly not new. But the recent combination of hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling is what has turned into the biggest problem. The U.S. performs a little less than half of all hydraulic fracturing jobs in the world, but several countries, including France and the U.K., have banned the practice altogether.
The biggest concern to the average Joe is the unknown. Is the increase in global earthquakes a direct result of fracking? Does contamination from the drilling process destroy the topsoil above and around the well? Is our drinking water at risk?
Many of these questions haven't been answered officially, but the most disconcerting issue is the use of unknown chemicals to blast out the natural resources. A small percentage of the components that get blasted into the earth can range from hydrochloric acid to methanol, and the EPA has yet to finish its study on the impact that these chemicals—and fracking in general—have on our drinking water sources.
As someone who raises your food for a living, I'm worried about this whole issue and its potential effect on our food system. Not only does fracking consume millions of gallons of perfectly good water, but it may also ruin the last of our deep-water reserves in this country. That's water used to grow our crops and hydrate our animals; and as we lose that, we lose our healthy food, regardless of the organic growing methods we use aboveground.
And if you think it's not happening in our area, think again. Chattanooga sits atop prime fracking real estate on what is known as Chattanooga shale. Although this shale is too delicate for traditional water fracking, nitrogen is used in its place, which some say isn't as wasteful.
I talked a bit about this topic with Derek Hodnett, senior associate at Chattanooga's branch of the geotechnical engineering consultant Terracon. The national company is employee-owned, providing environmental, geotechnical and materials services, including full-service personnel air-monitoring exposure for employees at the worksite. Essentially, they test the air at these local fracking sites.
"Overall, the concept of formation fracturing to increase production (and in some cases to allow production) is acceptable,” Hodnett said. “What is unfortunate, in my opinion, [is that] the two sides are so polarized neither will make an effort to accept what the other has to say. The 'big oil' side has the lobbyists and money to open more areas to drilling/fracking with limited regulation. The anti-fracking faction seems to be pushing to stop all drilling, as opposed to having it done in a controlled fashion."
Professional geologist Marie Maher, also of Terracon, said that one of the biggest issues is the uncontrollable nature of hydraulically fracturing bedrock.
"The fissures that are created during the fracking process can potentially transport released methane gas and fracking fluid components into aquifers, in essence contaminating groundwater supplies," she said. "It appears the scientific technology has exceeded environmental regulatory policy in this field. The extraction and production benefits of fracking are hard to ignore, and I think companies will continue to invest more resources and energy in advancing the techniques in an environmentally friendly route."
If you're concerned about fracking in the Chattanooga region and would like to learn more, you can get involved through the Stop Fracking Around Chattanooga group on Facebook.
Shawn Schuster is a writer/editor for AOL and sustainable farmer in Alabama. He can be reached on Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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